A sprawling, prosperous Neolithic village dated to 9,000 years ago has been discovered in Motza, at the foot of the Jerusalem hills. The site, featuring dozens of stone houses, grander buildings that may have been temples, and skeletal remains was discovered serendipitously during works ahead of building a new road.
Belying thoughts that prehistoric settlements didn’t have enough “culture” to grow anywhere near that large, the village seems to have supported around a thousand people at its heyday. It was about 500 meters in length, which isn’t much smaller than the modern village of Abu Ghosh nearby. However, it was mysteriously abandoned after about 400 years and would only arise anew 5,000 years later, in the era of Roman control over the land.
Israelis know the site where this village was found all too well: it’s right at the dangerous hairpin bend on the main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that has finally been replaced by a bridge.
The serendipitous discovery of the village adds to one found not far, in Shuafat, dating to 7,000 years. There too the archaeologists found stone houses that had been in use for at least hundreds of years.
Red temple floors
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The Neolithic villagers made their stone bricks crudely, using flint tools, and apparently rammed wooden stakes into cracks in the natural rock to break it. The stone bricks were cemented with mud, which means that every time the winter rainy season came around, the walls would need maintenance. The town was built at the confluence of two streams.
These village builders 9,000 years ago were among the early adopters of a settled lifestyle. Though some stabs at cultivation clearly began in the Levant at least 23,000 years ago, it would take millennia before people transitioned more firmly from hunting and gathering for subsistence to farming.
The Motza site isn’t the only huge settlement from that time, Dr Hamoudi Khalaily from the Antiquities Authority told Haaretz. “There are others, mainly in Jordan, but none have been thoroughly excavated,” he says. There are also some in Israel itself, including in the once-marshy Hula valley.
“Neolithic settlements were flourishing at the time,” Khalaily explains. The people who had passed the point of scrabbling subsistence from gathered grains and hunted rats; they had the leisure to build not only houses of stone, but public places featuring a more monumental type of construction, which the archaeologists found in this Motza site as well.
We can only speculate what the ancient people got up to in these public places, but sheer care in the workmanship is indicative of a deep respect.
Domestic houses in which the hoi polloi lived didn’t have particularly invested flooring beyond dirt or basic plaster. The public places in prehistoric Motza had better plastering, colored red, Khalaily says.
The archaeologists also found differences in the tool assemblages in the homes and the public places, further indicating that something special was going on there.
Happily for our peace of mind, whatever else that red color might suggest, the excavators didn’t find signs of violence, Khalaily reassures. Also, people seem to have long since discovered worship, as attested by sites such as the famous 12,000-year old site of Gobekli Tepe in Anatolia, across the Mediterranean from Israel, which some call the world's first temple".
Khalaily for one is comfortable speculating that specially invested edifices featuring specially invested flooring and tools served some religious purpose, that could have gone back a very long way.
The fertile Motza valley seems to have been occupied since the dawn of modern human existence. This Neolithic village may well have been the largest nearby center of human activity in the area at its time, Khalaily says.
Organic findings show the early Motza dwellers ate of the gazelle, boar, badgers, hares and any rodent they could catch. They also ate sheep, goats, pigs and cows, which were at least partially domesticated.
At the time, people were still transiting from a subsistence based on hunting and gathering, to farming. The domestication of both plants and animals was very much still a work in progress. For example, the domestication of the hardy goat was a fairly recent 11,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia; sheep were only dometicated around 10,000 to 11,000 years ago and not exactly next door, but in Anatolia.
The Motza goats were still wild-type bezoar, which once abounded in the region. Khalaily's theory for the domestication of the bezoar is that the Neolithics separated the kids and, simply, raised them up in the home. Once the wild baby goats identified people as mommy, they would be more amiable.
We know the pigs at least were domestic, not completely wild boars that got trapped somehow, because their teeth and molars were in good condition, while boar teeth and molars get ground down over time as they grub for food, Khalaily explains.
The researchers also found evidence of domesticated, not wild-type, wheat and barley, fava beans, and lentils. Fava had only been domesticated for about a thousand years by then, it seems: the bean is believed to have been tamed in the Galilee 10,000 years ago.
So, it seems to have been a bountiful period, though much remains mysterious about the transition period from hunting-gathering to agriculture. Another huge village much bigger than the state of culture had been thought to be able to sustain was discovered on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (which is a freshwater lake), and dated to 12,000 years ago. Large settlements have been found at Atlit (an underwater site covering 10 acres, says Dr. Jacob Vardi, who is directing the excavation at Motza together with Khalaily). There are also sites in Jordan and Turkey.
With around 1,000 people, in the terms of the time, this was no village: it was a city, Khalaily says.
Suffer the children
Unfortunately for posterity, the floors of the houses were made of tightly-packed plaster which seems to have been kept clean, leaving behind few clues from the inhabitants’ daily lives.
But underneath the plaster floors at least 10 people were found buried, lying in fetal positions.
A third were men. A third were women. And, a third were children and babies. Which shows, Khalaily explains, that for the first known time in human history, children were considered something other than disposable.
"During the transitional time between hunting and gathering to settlement, the attitude towards children, in life and death, changed," he explains the theory.
No earlier burials of children have been found: "If a baby died, they didn't consider it important or bury it," he says. Or at least, there is no sign that they did. "But after people settled, they began burying the babies."
The remains of the men included young and old, a pretty normal population distribution, Khalaily observes. But some of the bodies lacked skulls.
A god, or Grandpa on the wall
What happened to the missing skulls? The archaeologists suspect that they had been covered in clay and used as ritual objects.
Plastered skulls 9,500 years old have been found all over the region, from southern Israel to Turkey, including at Gobekli Tepe. Some believe the skulls attest to an absolutely vast ancestor cult, that contributed to the successful rise of complex societies in the Neolithic.
Khalaily offers a twist on the theory. The Neolithics probably sanctified their leaders: "When a leader died, they would bury him, and after some years, after the body decayed, they would remove the skull and turn into a mask," he postulates.
The skull would be "fleshed out" using plaster, and was probably repainted to depict the deceased: "If he was good, he would have open eyes and if he was bad, the eyes would show it," Khalaily speculates. "The skull would then be placed in a public place as a guide for the younger generation of leaders. They might remain until the new leader had established his status in society – when the skull wouldn't be needed any more.
"It's like picture of one's grandfather on the wall. You leave it there until fixing up the house, but then once the wall is fresh and repainted, you don't put the picture back," Khalaily says.
Vardi suggests a plausible theory for why leaders are necessary. “In a group of wanderers, tensions would have broken up the group,” he offers. “Once you settle down, you’re stuck with objects which can’t be moved: real estate. Then tensions arise, with squabbles over land and property and you need someone who will manage these conflicts, a chief who makes decisions.”
What the archaeologists didn't find is pottery: this was a pre-pottery Neolithic culture. Among the stone tools that the archaeologists found in this pre-pottery Neolithic town were sickle blades, arrowheads, spearheads and axe heads. Broken obsidian blades seem to have arrived from Anatolia. Vardi believes the obsidian had wandered southwards by a prolonged barter process, not through direct exchange.
Some flint blades showed residues of bitumen, a mineral glue mined in the Dead Sea area. There were also some stone bracelets.
Around 8,700 years ago the village was abandoned. We do not know why. Maybe locally the resources became depleted, Vardi suggests. Maybe there was an epidemic. Thousands of years would pass, going by the dity and debris that collected over the long-forgotten Neolithic city. Then in around 200 B.C.E., a town would arise anew on the very same spot, under the aegis of the mighty Romans.